By Robert Haas, MS
Has your doctor ever handed you a prescription for tomatoes, turmeric, ginger or onions, or seafood for exercise-related soreness or minor injuries?
Chances are your doctor told you to take ibuprofen or aspirin and RICE— rest, ice, compression and elevation. That’s fine as far as it goes, but did you know you can heal faster from simple exercise injuries by following The MediterrAsian Diet?
As you may already know, The MediterrAsian Diet incorporates the most powerful healing and disease-fighting nutrients from the two healthiest diets in the world, the Mediterranean and Asian diets. No other way of eating can give you the results of this phytonutrient-dense eating plan.
The natural process of inflammation invoked by ordinary exercise or a sports injury releases tissue-dissolving enzymes, histamine, hydrogen peroxide and free radicals. These substances play a necessary and vital role in initiating healing, but often, the inflammatory response is excessive and rages on uncontrolled. If you want to reduce tissue damage and heal faster, you need to help Mother Nature with MediterrAsian healing foods and nutrients. Here’s a list of common foods and spices that turn your food pantry into a first aid kit to help you heal faster from muscle soreness, simple sprains, aches and pains.
TUMERIC: Turmeric, the bright orange-yellow spice, contains curcumin, a potent anti-inflammatory antioxidant. Curcumin is a natural antioxidant that scavenges hydroxyl radicals, protects against lipid peroxidation (the process by which fats turn rancid) and possesses anti-inflammatory activity.
Curcumin increases the secretion of bile by stimulating the bile duct. Curcumin also protects the liver by scavenging free radicals. It inhibits both platelet aggregation and the enzymes that induce inflammatory prostaglandins (a class of unsaturated fatty acids). Curcumin is also an inhibitor of arachidonic acid (AA, a prostaglandin precursor).
Today, Chinese and Indian doctors apply turmeric poultices to injured tissue to relieve aching and swelling of sprains. Curcumin also exerts an antihistamine effect. Histamine released by mast cells during the first phase of inflammation causes blood vessels to dilate. Curcumin reduces this effect. Additionally, there’s evidence curcumin might increase the power of natural cortisone secreted by the adrenal glands. Curcumin is commonly used in doses of 200 milligrams three times per day between meals. Turmeric also possesses antifungal and antibacterial properties.
GINGER: Ginger has a wealth of beneficial effects, including anti-inflammatory properties. It exerts strong antioxidant activity. Although most clinical studies have used powdered gingerroot at a dose of one gram per day, the fresh root may produce better results. An equivalent dosage would be 10 grams or 1/3 ounce (about 1/4-inch slice) of fresh root.
OLIVE OIL: Food scientists have isolated a phenolic compound in olive oil that possesses anti-inflammatory properties. Olive oil plays an important role in The MediterrAsian Diet because of this and because it is a neutral oil that does not raise blood cholesterol levels or promote cancer.
FISH OILS (EPA) Most vegetable oils are rich in linoleic acid, the precursor of AA. AA-derived eicosanoids (unsaturated fatty acids) such as prostaglandin E2 are pro-inflammatory. Consumption of salmon and other EPA-rich seafood leads to replacement of AA in cell membranes by EPA— a desirable consequence of eating salmon and other EPA-rich seafood at least once each week. EPA reduces acute and chronic inflammatory responses and is clinically useful in acute and chronic inflammatory conditions, including recovering from injury, surgery and infection.
SESAME OIL: Sesame oil contains sesamin, a specific inhibitor of delta 5-desaturase, an enzyme that controls the body’s synthesis of AA from DGLA. Sesamin and related compounds are present in sesame seeds or its oil. Sesamin lowers blood cholesterol levels by simultaneously inhibiting absorption and synthesis of cholesterol. Studies have also shown sesamin lowers blood pressure and increases vitamin E levels (as well as a related compound, gamma-tocopherol) in the blood.
Antioxidants Against Inflammation
Muscle soreness and simple sports injuries respond to this arsenal of anti-inflammatory and healing nutrients. Here is a list of some of the more powerful antioxidant healing nutrients that can help heal sports injuries, reduce muscle soreness and minimize your downtime:
- Flavonoids: These phytonutrients are also extremely effective in reducing inflammation and stabilizing collagen, a component of tendons. Flavonoid supplements include citrus bioflavonoids (500-1,000 milligrams three times a day) and grape seed or pine bark extracts (50-100 milligrams three times a day).
- L-glutathione: This antioxidant detoxifies free radicals directly by interacting with them. It also is an important contributor to the detoxification of many free radicals and foreign chemicals, aiding in the enzymatic detoxification of lipid peroxides (free radicals attached to fatty acids) and hydrogen peroxide produced by blood cells and immune cells during inflammation. It’s available as a dietary supplement and can be manufactured from another supplement, N-acetylcysteine. Dosage commonly used: 500 milligrams.
- N-acetylcysteine (NAC): NAC has been shown to stimulate glutathione. NAC can reduce the damaging effect of intracellular hydrogen peroxide (formed when white cells combat microorganisms) released by immune cells during the healing process, by 93 percent. In addition, supplemental NAC can reduce the frequency and duration of infectious diseases. NAC is used as an antidote for liver damage induced by the pain reliever acetaminophen.
- Quercetin: This phytonutrient possesses anti-inflammatory, antiviral and anti-tumor properties. Quercetin inhibits the release of histamine and other inflammatory mediators (such as hyaluronidase and neutrophil lysosomal enzyme) from mast cells, basophils, neutrophils and macrophages during infection and inflammation due to injury. Quercetin also inhibits many of the inflammatory products of steps in fatty acid metabolism, especially phospholipase A2 and lipoxygenase enzyme production. This results in reduced formation of leukotrienes (1,000 times more inflammatory than histamine), which are linked to asthma, psoriasis, gout, ulcerative colitis and cancer.
- Vitamin A: Vitamin A enhances the process of collagen (connective tissue) synthesis and skin growth. In addition, it counteracts the anti-inflammatory effects of steroids and free radicals. Dosage commonly used: 5,000 International Units (IU)
- Vitamin C: Vitamin C fulfills many important duties in wound and injury healing, including producing collagen and stimulating the immune system. As a water-soluble antioxidant, vitamin C specializes in scavenging oxidants and free radicals in the blood. Research on vitamin C shows it to be effective in reducing post-exercise muscle soreness. Vitamin C is required for the enzymatic hydroxylation of proline to form 4-hydroxyproline for collagen biosynthesis. Dosage commonly used: 200 to 2,000 milligrams.
- Vitamin E: This fat-soluble and antioxidant vitamin may help prevent muscle soreness in people unaccustomed to vigorous exercise. Vitamin E improves the healing process by increasing the mobilization of immune cells to damaged muscle cells and reducing the production of oxygen-free radicals. Dosage commonly used: 200-1,200 IU.
- Zinc: This mineral plays a vital role in wound healing, immunity and cellular proliferation and cell membrane stabilization. Dosage commonly used: 15 milligrams.
MediterrAsian Friendly Fats
You can reduce the inflammation potential of your diet by replacing saturated fats and certain diunsaturated fats (most vegetable oils) with monounsaturated fats, omega-3 fats, and omega-9 fats. Figure 1 shows you where to find these friendly fats and where the unfriendly ones lurk, as well.
Replacing all added fats in your diet with extra-virgin olive oil will help you keep your blood cholesterol score under control and provide disease-fighting phytonutrients that are not found in other oils. You can also use canola oil in recipes or dressings because it contains a rich supply of monounsaturated fats.
Repairing Cartilage with Healing Nutrients
If you participate in regular exercise or sports, you will eventually experience joint injury. Do you run or jump on hard surfaces? Your knees will eventually protest. You may injure or erode the cartilage that lines your kneecaps, leading to inflammation and pain. Cartilage, a plastic-like tissue, is made of thick bundles of collagen. It functions as a shock absorber, cushioning the joint with each movement. Over time, cartilage can wear away, leading to osteoarthritis. Osteoarthritis affects nearly 50 million Americans who suffer from the gradual breakdown of the cartilage that cushions the tips of their bones.
On certain occasions, you have to reach outside of MediterrAsian healing foods, spices, vitamins and minerals to help relive pain and inflammation. In such cases as arthritis or sore joints, you can use some well-known over-the-counter supplements to work with your diet. Always check with a physician before using these or any other dietary supplements.
The large number of nutritional supplements promoted as joint healers can be confusing, so here is a list of those supplements that scientific research has shown to be effective:
Glucosamine sulfate. The tissue lining the joints contains collagen and glycosaminoglycans (GAG). The body can rebuild cartilage from raw materials such as glucosamine. Glucosamine is the primary precursor of GAG. The synthesis of glucosamine actually begins with glucose. The amino acid L-glutamine controls the rate of GAG production and is therefore important in helping to repair damaged or eroded cartilage. Glutamine (consumed at 30 milligrams per kilogram of bodyweight) also helps stimulate the body’s replenishment of glycogen after exercise. Following a sports injury, the body may not be able to synthesize enough glucosamine for optimal healing. Older athletes have a tougher time healing from injury because the body’s ability to convert glucose to glucosamine diminishes with age.
Clinical research has shown that taking glucosamine sulfate supplements can increase GAG synthesis levels significantly. Studies have also shown that glucosamine sulfate relieves the pain and inflammation of osteoarthritis. Taking glucosamine sulfate supplements is a wise alternative to using nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs, e.g., ibuprofen), which have been shown to inhibit repair and accelerate destruction of cartilage. The one advantage NSAIDs have over glucosamine is that they relieve pain and help reduce inflammation within hours. Glucosamine sulfate can take one to three weeks to achieve maximum results. In one study, people who took glucosamine for three weeks reported more relief than those on ibuprofen. Injured athletes take between one and six grams of glucosamine sulfate to speed injury healing. A daily prophylactic dose of one gram may help reduce chronic loss of cartilage due to repetitive stress.
Glucosamine may be effective at helping to repair tendons and ligaments. Tendons and ligaments are composed of different types of connective tissue. Tendons are made of collagen and are essentially inflexible. Ligaments are composed mostly of elastin. As the name implies, elastin is a stretchable fibrous protein.
With acute or repetitive trauma or overuse, tendons can develop micro tears. These tears heal by the formation of either new collagen or scar tissue. The poorer a tendon’s blood supply, the greater the likelihood of inadequate recovery. Failing to adequately rest the injured tendon further impairs the healing process and produces chronic inflammation, thereby increasing the risk of scar-tissue formation.
Trainers and athletes report that taking glucosamine supplements can help speed the repair of injured tendons and ligaments. While these reports are encouraging, they are nevertheless anecdotal and do not constitute formal scientific proof. Theoretically, glucosamine should be able to reduce inflammation and help the healing process. Always check with a qualified sports medicine physician before you use any nutritional supplements or drugs to treat a sports injury.
Chondroitin sulfate. Chondroitin sulfate is the predominant glycosaminoglycan (GAG) found in cartilage. It’s an effective joint-protecting agent. Chondroitin can protect existing cartilage from breakdown. It does this by attracting nutrient-rich fluid to nourish cartilage and by blocking certain cartilage-destroying enzymes. Chondroitin sulfate is a relatively large molecule and is poorly absorbed by the small intestine. Glucosamine sulfate, on the other hand, is small enough to be well absorbed and to penetrate joint cartilage. Laboratory (in vitro) studies suggest that chondroitin may slow the breakdown of joint cartilage. Glucosamine and chondroitin sulfates won’t work in people with advanced arthritis, since they lack cartilage to restore. Studies in humans show that chondroitin sulfate and glucosamine sulfate work synergistically when taken together to stimulate cartilage production and to help reduce the caustic effects of cartilage damaging enzymes. Injured athletes take between 0.5 and 2.0 grams of chondroitin sulfate to speed healing. A daily dose of 500 milligrams may help reduce chronic joint damage due to repetitive stress.
S-adenosylmethionine (SAMe). SAMe is an acronym for S-adenosylmethionine, a compound manufactured in small amounts in the liver with the help of folic acid and vitamin B12 (the liver uses SAMe as the raw material to make the antioxidant glutathione).. SAMe protects the cells that help lubricate joints by reducing inflammation due to free radical damage. SAMe protects these (synovial cells) by blocking the enzymes that degrade cartilage and by preventing the depletion of glutathione. The body also converts SAMe to the amino acid cysteine. It may also protect important cartilage proteins called proteoglycans by lowering homocysteine levels. Homocysteine is an amino acid made in the body that can damage joints and artery linings. People on high-protein diets may suffer from high levels of homocysteine in the blood— a condition that may predispose them to arthritis and cardiovascular disease.
People with osteoarthritis taking SAMe in large-scale clinical trials experienced improvement in pain and joint mobility over the course of the two-month study. At the end of the study, about 80 percent of the people who took SAMe reported improvement. Seventy percent of the people with the most severe knee pain improved significantly. Side effects were minimal; the most severe side effect reported was gastrointestinal upset. Never use SAMe before first consulting with a physician. This compound can lead to serious interactions with prescription medications. If you suffer from depression, check with a health care professional before using this compound.
Methylsulfonylmethane (MSM). MSM is an odorless, white, crystalline powder used as a dietary supplement that may be useful in alleviating the pain associated with osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. The body uses MSM as a source of sulfur for the synthesis of vital compounds required for health and fitness. Researchers at Oregon Health Sciences University studied a strain of mice that were prone to the spontaneous development of joint lesions similar to those in rheumatoid arthritis. They found that animals that drank water laced with MSM from the age of two months until the age of five months suffered no degeneration of joint cartilage. In a control group of mice receiving only tap water, 50 percemt of the animals were found to have cartilage damage. People with joint pain typically take 500-1,000 milligrams per day.
Sources of Friendly Fats on the MediterrAsian Diet
The MediterrAsian Diet emphasizes foods and oils rich in biologically friendly fatty acids. Replacing saturated fats in the diet with the fats listed below will reduce the inflammation potential of your diet and help heal muscle soreness and sports injuries faster. At the very least, using friendly fats and avoiding the unfriendly ones will make any diet healthier. Fats and oils contain over twice the calories of carbohydrate and protein, so people attempting to lose excess body fat should limit their intake to no more than two tablespoons each day. Foods generally contain a mixture of various fatty acids. For example, olive oil contains saturated and unsaturated fats, but since it contains a preponderance of healthier monounsaturates, it’s listed as a “monounsaturated” fat. Avoid omega-6 fatty acids to heal faster and consume nuts, salmon, tuna, mackerel, anchovies and sardines, as well as avocados, to increase your intake of MediterrAsian-friendly fats.